Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District is a swing district, with approximately equal numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats. With such a swing-y House seat in play here, you'd think that Republicans would go all-out to win back the seat -- that there could and would be no better House race to watch. You'd be wrong.
Meet Raj Peter Bhakta, Democrat Allyson Schwartz's opponent for the 13th District seat. The half-Indian, half-Irish 30-year-old pulls into the Country Club Diner in northeast Philadelphia -- the kind of establishment that prominently features Taylor's pork roll sandwiches on the menu -- in a 1973 red Cadillac convertible, looking fresh and rested ahead of the election.
Bhakta wears a tweed jacket and an orange-striped bow tie. He grew up in the area and worked briefly in New York as an investment banker before founding an automotive company, Automovia, and a real estate firm, Vanquish Enterprises. He was also a contestant on the second season of "The Apprentice" for nine weeks, a stint he has milked shamelessly in his campaign. Some of his sparse campaign signs dotting local lawns read simply: "Hired!"
When I ask him about the circumstances of his television firing, he appears incredulous that I don't recall it perfectly. "You're fibbing me, right?"
But it often feels like Bhakta is the one who's fibbing, in awkward but steady ways. When the waitress asks if he'd like chicken soup with matzo balls, he nods enthusiastically before asking loudly, as if he wants to be heard: "What are matzo balls?" When I ask what he thinks of his opponent Schwartz, he replies, "Rusty battlewagon of the left in need of retirement." Actually, he uses another adjective after rusty that he then begs me to drop from the record. It's a perplexing request, since the expunged descriptive is no worse than "rusty," "battlewagon" or "liberal bitch," an invective Bhakta was accused of deploying against Schwartz early in the campaign. He denies having said it, telling me the charge was "complete junk, fabrication, baloney, gutter politics" before asking me if I've seen the 18 lawsuits filed against the Elizabeth Blackwell women's health center Schwartz founded and ran from 1975 to 1988.
Bhakta, who early in his campaign tried to draw attention to border security by riding an elephant across the Mexican border -- mariachi band in tow -- says he is running for the House because "the American dream is fading under the weight of entitlement spending and deficit spending, and an underinvestment in the future. I say, as a Republican, that foreign relations under this administration has been a study in disaster and incompetence."
In our 45-minute talk, Bhakta brushes off two DUI arrests turned up during his campaign. "I am the one who came out with them!" he says, adding, "I was young and stupid in my 20s and I'm 30 now." I ask him about reports that even his elephant stunt was a bust, since the animals were quarantined and dipped for ticks at the border by the Department of Agriculture. Bhakta replies, "It was after we crossed the border. Look, I could have been dressed in Afghan tribal wear, firing off a Kalashnikov, shouting 'Death to America' on an elephant with a band, and no one would have noticed. People need politicians who are going to do that type of thing."
When asked about a series of tax liens against one of his businesses, Bhakta quickly replies, "They're the equivalent of parking tickets. It's for a couple of hundred dollars." He then asks me where I got copies of the liens. A few moments later, he picks up his phone to take a call, but I am not convinced it's from a real caller. He returns to tell me he has to leave in five minutes.
But before he departs, he says this: "In politics, scrutiny on your life is intense. Whatever you've done which, say, you're not proud of is going to come up again and again. It's the problem in the political system. People who have done good things are people of action. Even if they have done 95 percent good things, people of action have done bad things too. So what you get instead is people who've done nothing. Cardboard cutouts who are willing to spit out sound bites. JFK would never have gotten elected today. Thomas Jefferson? Forget about it. The modern age is particularly unforgiving in its attention to shortcomings."